Education and Training Requirements

High School

Training to become a surgeon or physician is among the most rigorous of any profession, but the pay is also among the highest. To begin preparing for the demands of college, medical school, and an internship and residency in a hospital, be sure to take as many science and mathematics courses as possible. English, communication, and psychology classes will help prepare for the large amount of reporting and interacting with patients and staff that surgeons do on a daily basis.

Postsecondary Training

Many students who want to become a physician or surgeon enroll in premedical programs at a college or university. Premedical students take classes in biology, organic and inorganic chemistry, physics, mathematics, English, and the humanities. Some students who major in other disciplines go on to pursue a medical degree, but they generally have to complete additional course work in math and science. All students must take the standardized Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and then apply to medical schools to pursue the M.D. degree. Note that medical school admissions are fiercely competitive, so developing strong study habits, attaining good grades, and pursuing extracurricular activities are all important characteristics for a medical school applicant to have.

Students can also attend an osteopathic medical program leading to the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree.

Physicians wishing to pursue general surgery must complete a five-year residency in surgery according to the requirements set down by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. Throughout the surgery residency, residents are supervised at all levels of training by assisting on and then performing basic operations, such as the removal of an appendix. As the residency years continue, residents gain responsibility through teaching and supervisory duties. Eventually the residents are allowed to perform complex operations independently. Subspecialties require from one to three years of additional training.

Other Education or Training

Keeping up with cutting-edge surgical techniques is key to success as a surgeon. The following professional associations provide continuing education opportunities: Association of Women Surgeons, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Association of Neurological Surgeons, Society of Thoracic Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Osteopathic Association, and the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

The American Board of Surgery (ABS) administers board certification in surgery. Certification is a voluntary procedure but it is highly recommended. Most hospitals will not grant privileges to a surgeon without board certification. HMOs and other insurance groups will not make referrals or payments to a surgeon without board certification. Also, insurance companies are not likely to insure a surgeon for malpractice if he or she is not board certified.

To be eligible to apply for certification in surgery, a candidate must have successfully completed medical school and the requisite residency in surgery. Once a candidate's application has been approved, the candidate may take the computer-based examination. After passing the computer-based exam, the candidate may then take the oral exam.

Certification in surgery is valid for 10 years. To obtain recertification, surgeons must apply to the ABS with documentation of their continuing medical education activities and of the operations and procedures they have performed since being certified, and submit to a review by their peers. They must also pass a written exam.

Certification is available in a number of surgical specialties, including plastic surgery, colon and rectal surgery, neurological surgery, orthopedic surgery, and thoracic surgery. The American Board of Medical Specialties and the American Medical Association recognizes 24 specialty boards that certify physicians and surgeons.

All physicians and surgeons must be licensed by the state in which they work.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

There is no way to obtain direct experience in high school, but it's a good idea to take as many health and science classes as possible and participate in science clubs. Medical students gain experience by completing a five-year residency and possibly a fellowship (for those interested in pursuing subspecialties).

Successful surgeons are able to think quickly and act decisively in stressful situations, enjoy helping and working with people, are patient, have strong organizational skills, are able to give clear instructions, have good hand-eye coordination, and are able to listen and communicate well.